Memories from Running Track in High School

We have been working on a book for several years about sports in Clinton County. We do have quite a history, believe it or not and the locals love our sports teams, win or lose. For my blog today, I am including an essay that I wrote for the book and it describes what it was like to run track for our high school when Roger Ilg was the track coach.

What Track was Like

I ran track simply because my sister did. Initially, I had no interest in it. The only running shoes I owned were cheerleading sneakers, Converse. They were meant for gently bouncing on your toes, some serious high kicks, and spirited dance choreography. I merely wanted to follow my sister around, as I had always done.

My inability to think for myself put me on the starting line of the 100 meters at the high school track for the 1987 spring tryouts. “Just run fast, Sarah,” was the only advice my sister gave me as I crouched at the starting line, nervously waiting for the coach to yell “Go!” When he did, I ran. I ran as hard as I could, my little cheerleading sneakers hitting the asphalt at an unfamiliar pace, this time propelling me quickly forward instead of upward.

When I crossed the finish line before everyone else did I was ashamed. My first thought, as I looked at my friends—all of whom I had outrun—was: Who would be mad at me because I had beaten them? Before anyone had the chance to respond, the coach had said, “Margaret Hawley’s sister has some wheels on her!” And that was the moment when my life changed.

Track practice was hell. No, what I mean to say is, comparatively, hell would have been a day at the beach. I had never experienced such pain before. My lungs burned, my stomach ached, my brain throbbed, and my eardrums were wind whipped. During every practice I felt as if my insides were trying to push their way through my skin in an urgent quest to find another body, one that was resting peacefully beneath a shade tree or watching a movie with a friend. Some of my new teammates quit. I have no idea why it never occurred to me to do the same.

I do know that those of us who stayed learned quickly how to deal with pain, to work around it, to talk ourselves through it, to get used to it, to grow from it, and to understand that a life without it is a mediocre life. Pain makes you beautiful. It makes you sexy. It makes you strong. It gives you the ability to say, “I’ve seen the devil and we worked things out.” All of my teammates and I, we ran with him, and we knew how to deal with him.

“Breathe through your nose!”

“Use your arms!”

“Don’t sit down!”

“Don’t you dare quit!”

“The faster you run this, the faster you get to go home!”

We not only developed mental ways to deal with our suffering, we became physical specimens to behold. Arms, legs, butts, and abs that were so worshipped they deserved their own church.

We also became winners. We won almost every track meet for four years and every annual South Central Ohio League meet. We knew the names of our rivals at Little Miami, Miami Trace, Washington Court House, and Lebanon. We could outrun Xenia girls and outhurdle Clinton-Massie. Our track meets were watched by the neighborhood boys who played their rap music through the chainlink fence and cheered us on, making the final events more bearable.

It was dark and cold at the 200-yard mark of the mile relay. Parents placed themselves strategically at certain points around the track where there was limited support. I can still hear those voices: “That’s it! That’s it! Don’t let her catch you!”

After four seasons, we had no choice but to move on. At the awards banquet I can’t remember what my coach said because I was crying through most of it. I didn’t want it to end. Being a part of Roger Ilg’s WHS track team introduced me to a person that my mother had only told me about. “You’re a tough cookie, Sarah.” Now I knew—and my teammates as well—how strong we all were. We had proof. We outran, outthrew, and outjumped our problems and insecurities. We crossed finish lines first, dusting both the competition and our self-doubt. The track was hot, but we were hotter.

Occasionally, I see some of my teammates now and we complain about how old we are— how we pulled a muscle running halfway around the block or hurt our back bending down to plug in the vacuum cleaner. How did we abuse our bodies so back then when running 100 yards down the street now is a trip to the couch for a week?

But when I see them, I know. I remember, that we outran demons who tried to bring us down, tempting us to give up and give in to the pain. And we, along with our coaches, parents, friends, family—and the community—cheered each other on and chased them away.